One characteristic of the Bush administration’s false premises, and perhaps the one that has most damaged the nation’s reputation, is that its idea of America and its notion of American exceptionalism — Messianic and Manichaean — is the only idea of America. But there is another idea of the country, which began even before the country was a nation, before America became the United States, a nation under law. John Winthrop said (and has been cited by Republican and Democratic presidents since) that we must be “as a city upon a hill.” The next sentence is: “The eyes of all people are upon us.”
We must be unblinkered and unillusioned, conscious of “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” as our Declaration of Independence put it, with the sense that America never is alone or isolated — and not ultimately because we are scrutinized by others but because we understand ourselves and our history. America can begin to recover its reputation in the world only through self-recovery.